Democrats stir up gubernatorial races, including in GOP-rich Kansas

Republican incumbents face blue competition in 22 gubernatorial contests this year

In a seemingly dismal year for Democrats, who face the prospect of losing House seats and possibly control of the Senate, there is one bright spot: a chance to elect governors in several states run by Republicans.

The mathematics and political map both favor Democrats, the opposite of their circumstance in congressional races, where most House Republicans are safe and most competitive Senate contests are in places President Obama lost in 2012.

By contrast, Republican governors are battling in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and other states Obama carried twice.

Democrats have even expanded the fight to places such as ruby-red Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback faces a stiff challenge amid an uproar from GOP moderates and others unhappy with his aggressively conservative agenda — especially a massive tax cut that has badly strained state finances.

Recently, more than 100 Republican lawmakers, including two former lieutenant governors, the state insurance commissioner and several ex-legislative leaders, endorsed Brownback's Democratic opponent, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, in an unprecedented rebuke of their party chief. Brownback brushed aside the defections.

"You've got a lot more Republicans than Democrats, so any Democrat that runs, they'll work at doing that to show there's a split in the Republican Party," Brownback said, promising to counter with his own list of Democratic backers.

To some extent, Republicans are suffering from their success in gubernatorial races four years ago, including victories in Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the GOP might not have won but for the tea party wave. As Nathan Gonzales, an analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, put it, "One of the consequences of doing well in an election is having to defend those victories next time around."

Gubernatorial contests also tend to be less tied than congressional races to national forces such as Obama's tepid approval ratings, as voters focus on more practical concerns, including schools, traffic and local job prospects.

Thirty-six gubernatorial contests will be decided this year, 22 of them for seats currently in Republican hands. The GOP has a shot at a few held by Democrats, starting with Arkansas, Connecticut and Illinois. Colorado and Hawaii present more distant opportunities for the party.

For the most part, though, Republicans are striving to avoid a net loss and protect incumbents such as the surprisingly endangered Brownback.

Kansas is usually one of the most reliable GOP strongholds in the country. There is, however, a practicality to this stolid state: Kansans have long favored Republicans temperate in both word and deed, reflecting the average voter who may be personally conservative but politically pragmatic. Perhaps the best example is former Sen. Bob Dole, a consummate Washington insider who was renowned — and scorned by conservative detractors — for his deal-cutting flexibility.

Brownback has been starkly different. As a congressman in 1996, he took on his party's moderate establishment and won a primary to replace Dole, who stepped down to seek the White House. After two Senate terms and his own unsuccessful 2008 try for president, Brownback was elected governor in 2010, a banner year for Kansas Republicans, who won every state office and bolstered their considerable legislative majority.

Once in power, he helped lead a purge of GOP moderates, backing conservative challengers against several sitting lawmakers, and instituted what he called a model of red-state leadership. He pushed through the biggest tax cut in state history, slashed government, imposed some of the country's toughest abortion restrictions and broadly expanded gun rights.

"We're a state that's been doing a lot of changing in the last four years," said Brownback, who parked a chair outside the GOP's suburban Kansas City office, on the sidewalk between a Pilates studio and a store selling uniforms, for an al fresco interview on a rare summer day in the 70s. "It's gone well."

Many vehemently disagree.

Moody's Investors Service downgraded the state's bond rating this spring as Kansas dug deep into its rapidly dwindling reserves to make up for lost revenue. A number of public services — libraries, courts, welfare and, most conspicuously, public education — have faced cuts even as other states boosted post-recession funding. (Brownback said K-12 spending has also risen in Kansas, although most of that is attributable to increased money for an underfunded teacher pension system and payment of construction bonds.)

"The reality is it's a radical, risky venture," Ed Flentje, a public affairs professor at Wichita State University and veteran of two GOP administrations, said of the dramatic tax cuts. "He way oversold it."

In 2012, Brownback promised his economic plan would "be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy," creating tens of thousands of jobs and reversing a long-standing population decline by attracting tens of thousands of new residents. Since then, as critics note, the state has lagged the rest of the country in job creation as well as other measures of economic well-being.

Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, suggested Brownback was positioning himself for another presidential run in 2016 and the state was paying the price. (The governor said his entire political focus was on November.)

"Kansans [are] not interested in being held up as sort of this national model for ideologues," said Davis, a six-term lawmaker representing the university town of Lawrence. "They want something that works."

Brownback said he always expected a short-term fall in revenue and counseled patience. "Tax policy takes some time to have its impact," he said.

But skepticism abounds.

"Is that just to get himself reelected, to buy himself time?" asked Chris Walker. "That's my question."

Walker is editor and publisher of the Emporia Gazette, the newspaper of his great-grandfather, William A. White, the clarion voice of the Plains. Seated in White's old office, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and other White contemporaries, Walker said the newspaper endorsed Brownback's gubernatorial campaign; the area is as staunchly Republican as you'll find in Kansas.

But Walker said he was dubious of the tax cuts and wary of the direction Brownback was pushing the state, and his haste in doing so. Asked whether the newspaper would support Brownback's reelection, Walker paused at length.

"We'll have some pretty good discussion," he finally said.

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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